Mandalay was the last royal city before Myanmar was colonized by Britain in 1885. While the scale of King Mindon’s ambition for the walled citadel is clear at first glance, the whole magnificent palace complex was devastated during World War II. That said, the moat, palace walls with city gates, and wooden pavilions give an imposing and evocative impression of the royal era. Within the palace grounds, there is a museum and replica model of Mandalay Palace. Still considered the center of Burmese culture, Mandalay is the economic hub of Upper Myanmar and this thriving city is the second-largest in the country.
Mandalay’s intimate proximity to the Ayeyarwady River means a visit to the city isn’t complete without spending some time on the water. Made famous by Rudyard Kipling’s poem, the country’s largest river, flowing from north to south through its lands, is sometimes referred to as “The Road to Mandalay”. River cruises are a wonderful way to visit the former royal city or discover the surrounding areas, but if you fly into Mandalay (or arrive by road) there are still plenty of opportunities to enjoy the riverine existence. Moreover, bodies of water such as Thaungthaman Lake (over which the iconic U Bein stretches) are magical in their own right.
Lying as it does between the vast plain of Ayeyarwady River’s terrace, the plateau of Shan State in the east, and at the foot of historic Mandalay Hill, Mandalay is a great base from which to explore the ruins of nearby ancient capitals. Most highly recommended are those located near the river, such as Inwa (Ava) and Sagaing. The refreshing colonial hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin is also worth a visit. It was a summer retreat during British rule as its altitude offered the settlers a relatively cool climate and respite from the hot season. Further afield, a 200km drive from the city of Mandalay in Mogok, which is world-renowned for its rubies.
When King Mindon Min founded Mandalay in 1857 he ordered the construction of a new Royal Palace. This was the last palace built by Burmese royals. The king located it in a square citadel surrounded by four 2km-long walls with a total of 48 turrets and 12 gates, one for each sign of the zodiac. Much of the palace was destroyed in WWII and has since been reconstructed. Encircling the citadel is a picturesque 60m-wide moat with a number of bridges protect the large complex which includes audience halls, throne halls, a monastery, a watchtower, a court building, a tooth relic building and a library where the Buddhist scriptures were kept.
Boasting many pagodas and monasteries, Mandalay is home to the stunning 4m-high, seated Maha Myat Muni Buddha image, located at the pagoda bearing the same name. Cast in bronze, with a crown decorated with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires, it weighs an impressive 6.5 tons. Kuthodaw Pagoda was built by King Mindon Min at the same time that the nearby Royal Palace was built. Known in Burmese as Maha Lawka Marazein Paya, is also dubbed the world’s largest book as it houses 729 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist teachings. It comprises a gilded pagoda, several pavilions, and hundreds of shrines.
Mandalay Hill lies north of downtown Mandalay and is 230m high. It is dotted with pagodas and Buddhist temples. The fabulous panoramic view of the city, especially at sunrise or sunset, is worth the effort of the barefooted climb on the covered stairway on the hill’s southern slope. You can also drive but then you would miss the colorful processions of prayer, the hawkers selling their wares along the way, and the opportunity to take in the views at your own pace. Lying at the foot of the hill is Shwe Mann Taung Golf Course, an 18-hole course with some spectacular scenery and Mandalay Hill as a stunning backdrop.
Amarapura is an old capital of the Kone Baung dynasty. Founded by King Bodawpaya in 1783 as his new capital, Amarapura is famous for silk weaving. When King Mindon moved the capital from Amarapura to Mandalay, the old Royal Palace was dismantled, taken to Mandalay, and rebuilt there. U Bein Bridge, built in the mid 19th century using reclaimed teak from dismantled buildings, is a glorious sight especially in the early evening as it becomes silhouetted against the vivid sunsets.
Given its age (and the fact that only a few of the 1086 poles on which it rests have been replaced by concrete supports) U Bein is iconic but not for the faint-hearted. At about 1,200m, spanning Thaungthaman Lake, it is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. Worth a visit nearby is Mahar Wai Yan Bon Thar Bargaya Monastery, decorated with over 28,000 carved wooden figures, it boasts over 500 Buddha images and the largest catalog of palm leaf manuscripts.
A compact riverside town in Sagaing Region, Mingun lies on the Ayeyarwady River on the west bank about 10km from Mandalay. It is a popular excursion and worth spending at least half a day exploring its impressive sights. Arriving by boat from Mandalay is the most enjoyable although you can also arrive by road from Sagaing.
Mingun is best known for its enormous, unfinished stupa, Mingun Pahtodawgyi, (intended to be the largest in the world at a projected height of 150m), which now lies ravaged by earthquakes but there are also monasteries, meditation centers, and other monuments of historical and cultural importance.
King Bodawpaya had an enormous bell cast from 1808 to 1810 which was meant to be installed in Mingun Pahtodawgyi. As the stupa was never finished it is now housed nearby. Measuring almost 4m high it is considered the largest ringing bell in the world. The bell is rung by striking its exterior with a wood log. The number 55555 is inscribed in Burmese script on the outside of the bell, 55555 being its weight in viss, which is about 90 tons.
One sight you cannot miss is the impressively massive Mingun Pahtodawgyi, a pagoda built at the end of the 18th century intended to be the largest in the country. The curious history of a prophecy is responsible for it not being completed. In front, guarding the pagoda, are the remains of two 29m-tall decorated entrance. The huge cracks in the edifice result from the earthquake of 1838.
Three years before King Bagyidaw succeeded to the throne, he built Hsinbyume Pagoda in 1816, in memory of his late wife the Hsinbyume Princess. As a representation of the Sulamani Pagoda, and in accordance with Buddhist cosmology, the pagoda stands atop Mount Meru. The seven wavy terraces around the pagoda represent the seven mountain ranges around Mount Meru. Badly damaged in 1838 by a quake, it was restored by King Mindon in 1874.
The banks of Ayeyarwady hold many places of historical interest. Innwa, (also known as Ava) the capital of several kingdoms between the 14th and 19th centuries, is located on the banks of both the Ayeyarwady and Myitnge rivers. It is about 21km from Mandalay and its main attractions are the 19th century Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery and the 1830s Bagaya Kyaung Monastery supported by nearly 300 huge teak stilts and known for its intricate woodcarvings. An impressive 1,200m-long bridge crosses from Ava to Sagaing.
As a center of Buddhist learning and meditation, the hills of Sagaing are studded with pagodas and monasteries, including Kaungmudaw Pagoda. Yandabo is a village popular for pottery making and also famous for an Anglo-Myanmar peace treaty that was signed in 1826. Kyauk Myaung is another pottery village, but it is much bigger than Yandabo. It is specialized in the production of huge glazed Martaban jars, which are sold throughout the country and are used to hold water, rice, and cooking oil.
There are many fascinating and diverse localities to visit in the area surrounding Mandalay. At an altitude of 1,070m, Pyin Oo Lwin, the nearest hill station with its cool alpine climate has the perfect escape from the heat of the city. Also worth visiting are Dat Taw Gyaint Waterfall and National Kandawgyi Garden, (modeled on Kew Gardens in the UK) which has many collections of flora, both native and foreign species, as well as exotic, shady trees and a fabulous lake to enjoy.
One of Myanmar’s most fascinating journeys is the train ride from Pyin Oo Lwin to the scenic and laid-back town of Hsipaw (or even on to Lashio), taking in the northern Shan hills and the famous Gokteik Gorge and viaduct. Other attractions include Peik Chin Myaung Cave (about 20km from Pyin Oo Lwin), featuring colorful Buddhist scenes, a large number of shrines and a picturesque waterfall at its entrance, and Mogok “City of Gems”, 200km north of Mandalay whose rubies are world-famous.
Mandalay, considered the center of the nation’s culture and arts, is home to many examples of ancient crafts. Witness marble carving near Maha Myat Muni Pagoda where many religious items, mainly Buddha images and stone slabs for inscriptions, are produced. For wooden handicrafts visit workshops near Maha Myat Muni Pagoda and Tampawaddy. The Shwe-gyi-do quarter of Mandalay is the best place to see embroidery and applique work, while one of the main professions of the Amarapura people is silk weaving for which the area is famous.
Metalworking is also very prevalent in the region. For example, bronze casting can be studied in Tampawaddy between Mandalay and Amarapura. Meanwhile, silverware workshops can be found in a village called Ywa-Htaund which is along the Sagaing-Monywa highway road. However, Mandalay is probably most renowned as the only place in Myanmar for the ancient gold leaf industry. In a painstaking, 7-hr process of pounding, a total of 2,000 very thin gold leaves can be obtained from a tickle of 24 karats pure gold. These leaves are then applied by Buddhist devotees to stupas.
As the cultural heart of Myanmar, Mandalay is the place where the most refined arts and traditions of dance, music, and drama live on. Traditional entertainment in Myanmar comes in the form of Pwe, which often involve dancing and vividly colorful costumes. The most famous Pwe is Anyeint, which combines dance with music, slapstick comedy, and playful goading of the audience.
Mandalay preserves the folk art of puppetry called Yoke The Pwe and showcases this art form to locals and visitors through marionette shows and theatre performances. As with many other Pwe, it was originally performed to popularise Buddhist stories.
Many performances, whether they are comedy or puppetry, are accompanied by music. Myanmar traditional music is generally rhythmic and played without musical notes. There are various folk and classical traditions, using drums, as well as string and wind instruments. Mandalay Marionettes or the Mintha are two popular places to enjoy some colorful doses of traditional Myanmar entertainment. Myanmar traditional music is said to have “freedom to improvise, freedom from being note-bound, and freedom of variations”.
Mandalay has a great culinary heritage. For example, kyar zan hin, a glass noodle soup with chicken, mushrooms, onions, and boiled egg, garnished with coriander, crushed dried chili, and a dash of lime. Pickled tea leaf salad served with various crunchy condiments is also popular. For something sweet try htoe mont, a typical Mandalay sweet, glutinous rice cake from other parts of the country are also much loved for example a Shan dish called meeshay.
Many festivities take place in and around Mandalay throughout the year. Perhaps the most notable of these is the 2-week long Maha Myat Muni Pagoda Festival in February. The temple is always the center of activities but during this festival, it explodes with energy. Equally, one of Mandalay’s loudest and most colorful celebrations, the week-long Taung Pyone Nat Festival, attracts spirit worshippers from throughout Myanmar and curious tourists. The festival takes place in Taung Pyone village, about 20km north of Mandalay.